In a couple of months time, when the obligatory list of the best albums of the year are collated, it’s a pretty sure bet that Joanna Newsom’s third album, the typically ambitious triple disc Have One On Me, will be up there. Yet as impressive as her recorded output is, it’s as a live artist that Newsom really comes into her own.
The people crammed inside Manchester’s opulent Palace Theatre knows this, as does Roy Harper. The folk legend has come out of retirement simply to be Newsom’s support act and inbetween some gorgeous renditions of classics like Me And My Woman, Francesca and Unknown Solider, he’s fulsome in his praise of the Californian: “one of the kindest people I know… she’s a beautiful woman playing magical songs”.
Quite how magical became clear when the tiny blonde frame of Newsom appeared, smiling shyly to sit behind a harp almost bigger than she was. And the moment she launched into Bridges And Balloons, the entire audience was enchanted. It wasn’t just that otherworldy voice, or the lyrics seemingly designed to be poured over and analysed – it was the way her fingers danced along the harp strings, her face rapt with concentration as she delved into these complex, intricately arranged songs. And with many of those songs hitting the 10 minute mark, it was impossible not to sit back and wallow.
The set list, as expected, leaned heavily on Have One On Me, although there was a surprising amount of songs from debut album The Milk Eyed Mender, including a glorious Inflammatory Writ. Newsom swapped between harp and piano throughout the evening, while her impossibly talented band often played different instruments during the same song – guitarist Ryan Francesconi often swapping between guitar, banjo, mandolin and kaval.
Despite the sometimes austere nature of her music, Newsom was all smiles on stage. Sipping from a large mug of tea onstage, she easily chatted to the audience, good-naturedly bemoaning the fact that “when people take photos of me onstage, I’m pulling the strangest faces ever” and during a lengthy interlude to retune her harp, Newsom and drummer Neal Morgan swapped possibly made-up facts about Roy Harper (only interrupted by a unexpected walk-on appearance from the man himself).
Mostly though, it was all about the music – from a hypnotic rendition of Soft As Chalk, or a gorgeous version of Cosmia (the sole appearance from Ys tonight), there wasn’t a dud note. Perhaps the highlight was a wonderful take on Good Intentions Pavement Company, possibly Newsom’s most accessible number, featuring an extended trombone solo by Andy Strain.
Sadly, there was no time for gems such as The Book Of Right On, Go Long or On A Good Day, but that was more than made up for by a spellbinding Peach Plum Pear (with Newsom’s harp standing in for the original harpsichord, and sounding all the better for it). A beautiful solo version of Have One On Me’s highlight Jackrabbits made for the perfect encore.
She may remain an acquired taste, but there really is nobody quite like Joanna Newsom. And on a night like this, it was a privilege to watch an artist at the very top of her game.
Joanna Newsom played: Bridges & Balloons, Have One On Me, Easy, Cosmia, Soft As Chalk, Autumn, Inflammatory Writ, In California, Good Intentions Pavement Company, Peach Plum Pear Encore: Jackrabbits